If you are a rock-n --roll fan, and you are not familiar with Lou Reed's work, first in the group The Velvet Underground and then his solo later work, you have a lot of catching up to do. The Velvet Underground box set "Peel Slowly and See" has just about everything worth owning, if you don't currently own anything by the Velvet Underground (if so you truly cannot call yourself hip in my book). In some ways The Velvet Underground was the perfect rock band. They didn't sell any records. They made great music. They had attitude. They broke up. The Velvet Underground songs "I Can't Stand It', which has a middle chaotic instrumental section that always reminded me of what it would sound like to be in the middle of an airplane diving headlong into the ground at a 1000 miles an hour, and the energetic "Foggy Notion" can both be found on the single CD "VU", and both songs are absolutely essential listening (they are also included in the box set). The Velvet Underground is a group worth delving into, with Lou Reed at the helm they hardly ever made a bad album, though their life span was very short.
Of the Lou Reed solo albums I am familiar with, I have always liked "Berlin", "Street Hassle", the very weird "The Bells", and the live "Rock N Roll" animal. "Rock N Roll" album contains both some Velvet tunes and tunes from "Berlin". It is not a bad place to start for the beginner. I prefer almost any of his albums to the greatest hits type collections, and he didn't really have that many hits anyway once you get past "Walk on the Wild Side", which I never liked much and wouldn't care if I never heard it again. The original album, "Berlin", was release in 1973. It is a dark and gritty album, conceived as a song cycle, though some of the songs had been written earlier. Commercially it was a failure. I remember having a hard time finding a copy many years ago, and the LP version I finally did find may have be an German import version (the CD is in print currently). I like the mood and the feel of the album, but sometimes the lyrics have a half-assed feel, like he should have spent more time polishing the work before recording. I was listening to the Beatles' "I'm Looking Through You" at the beginning of Ghost Town, and every note sounds perfect. The lyrics of "Berlin" do not strike me that way, though I do like the music a lot. Having a good band to back him up helped "Berlin" a lot.
The DVD of Lou Reed's Berlin is a film of the live concert performed in Brooklyn in 2006. The film was directed by Julian Schnabel. Julian recently directed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Within Lou Reed's Berlin, there are short filmed scenes that visualize the lyrics, but I didn't find these particularly helpful, and for the most part unnecessary, though not hugely distracting. The concert was a straight presentation of the original album, including a horn section and a choir that sound very close, if not exactly, the same as the original album arrangements. The album has a variety of moods, some of the songs rock really hard, some slower, and help to push the story along. You get a feel of tragedy, though I don't think it comes from the plotline as much as from the Lou Reed's music and the building up of small details. Lou was never one to shy away from difficult subjects. In a nice touch Steve Hunter is the lead guitar for the concert, and he also played on the original album (as well as the live "Rock N Roll Animal").
It is nice to have a straight forward concert film (I would kill to have one of Springsteen and his band around 1978 or so). After the performance of Berlin there are two more songs, "Rock Minuet" and "Sweet Jane". The sound is very good, and everyone looks like they are enjoying themselves. Lou Reed singing leaves something to be desired, nothing new, but overall it works well, though I would suggest becoming familiar with the original album first before diving into this. If you are a Lou Reed fan, this is an essential purchase. If you are a rock fan, and not familiar with Lou Reed, don't be afraid to get your feet wet.
You can write to James Harper at firstname.lastname@example.org.